Wednesday, December 17, 2008

J. P. Holding (no bars against all comers) vs. American Atheists

Was Jesus An Historical Figure

This was a very odd debate, taking place in fairly unique manner which resembles a cross between an online forum and a traditional written debate. Possibly the most surprising thing about this was the comments (snarky as they were) were also fairly scholarly:
Tacitus was far from refusing to make judgments on them. He was merely indirect in the statement of his judgments. A good analysis of the issue is Inez Scott Ryberg, "Tacitus' Art of Innuendo", Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol.73 (1942), pp.384-404. He might get the flavor of Tacitus' approach by actually reading a few pages of the old Roman senator.

There is no pleasing Mr Holding. He refuses to consult the original text, preferring to rely on appeals to authority. When one supplies even one reference for him to read, specifically on the issue of how Tacitus indirectly develops his criticism of his subjects, Mr Holding denies the value of secondary sources.
If you have loads of spare time and a willingness to do loads of homework, you might really enjoy this one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Hitchens vs. Wolpe in New York, NY

This debate started out fairly straightforwardly, but eventually moved on to a back and forth on theistic vs. non-theistic morality.  It seems obvious to me that a holy man who preaches from a particular holy book should be held more closely accountable to the ethics of that particular book than a Jeffersonian secularist should be held to account for, say, Stalinist atrocities.  Nonetheless, the rabbi repeatedly attempted to get pin communist ethics on Hitch's worldview, while denying or ignoring rebuttals directed at the genocidal ethics of the Hebrews in taking the so-called promised land for themselves.  Ah well.

I've found it exceedingly challenging to attempt to recast Hitchen's rhetoric as atheological arguments.  Here is one example:

  1. If religion X is true, then its conception of morality must be correct
  2. For a moral theory to be correct, it must be lead to moral action
  3. [Insert litany of relevant religious atrocities here]
  4. Therefore, religion X is not true.
Mostly, Hitch sticks to step #3 and leaves the rest of the proof and all inferences to the listener. I should point out that most religionists I know will explicitly reject step #2, if the question is put to them directly.  

Overall, this debate lacked heft and substance, and was long on rhetoric.   Both speakers rate about 2.5 or so.  

Friday, October 31, 2008

Plantinga vs Gale at the University of Tennessee

This debate is about as informal as they get, but doesn't suffer for it. Both speakers are highly articulate and well grounded in the designated subject matter, which is the existence of god and the problem of evil.

Plantinga leads off with a basic restatement of the logical form of the problem of evil and notes that the philosophical community has more or less moved on to the evidential problem of evil. He goes on to claim that some of the classical arguments for god (e.g. cosmological and fine-tuning arguments) provide some evidence for the existence of a creator, and that such evidence should be weighed against the evidential problem of evil. Such arguments may be evidentially relevant to the amoral creator god of deism, but cannot be helpful as evidence for the all-loving god of classical theism.

He eventually gets around to his own defense against the problem of evil, wherein he invents the idea of “no-see-ums” and posits the question of “whether god’s reasons are more like no-see-ums or more like Saint Bernard’s [dogs].” This is particularly ironic way of stating the problem since the latter is an actual canine, while the former is merely a clever concept made up by an apologist for the sake of illustration and persuasion. Um...yeah.

Plantinga goes on to recall the story of Job, in quite some detail, which also strikes me as an odd move, given that the moral of that peculiar story is that if God has any good reasons for allowing evil, they are known only to God (and possibly Satan) but not revealed to humankind. This is not exactly encouraging to the field of theodicy as a theological enterprise.

Nonetheless, Plantinga asserts that there must be good reasons that God permits evidently gratuitious suffering, and states on account of these unknown reasons, "I continue to believe in God and his goodness, and am entirely rational in so doing." He goes on to attempt a theodicy of his own, by providing reasons which might be part of the package of unknown reasons, and they are as follows: The key doctrines of Plantinga's religion (e.g. incarnation, resurrection, atonement) are incomparably good. Therefore, any world in in which Plantinga's religion is true is better than worlds in which it is not true. Therefore, the problem of evil isn't really a problem at all. Seriously, that's his argument. If Plantinga begged the question any harder than this, he'd be ticketed by the thought police.

At any rate, the conversation starts to get geniunely interesting and insightful when Gale takes the stage around 36 minutes in, and starts throwing out questions and having an interchange of ideas. I'll leave it to the listener to judge, but it seemed to me that Gale did a better job of asking difficult questions than Plantinga did of answering them.

Overall, this debate is worth watching. Share and enjoy!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hitchens vs. Wilson in Glenside, PA

This debate went down in a curiously logic-free way (at least at first) since the opening statements seemed not to include anything like a cogent argument from either side.  The closest that Wilson got was an appeal to the premise that naturally evolved biological neural networks are no better at processing information than fizzy cans of soda, an utterly ridiculous meme which nonetheless seems to be making the rounds.  As I noted earlier, I cannot think of a chemical reaction more perfectly disanalogous to the amazingly complex processes studied by modern neuroscience than the shaking up of a can of soda – the only thing these things seem to have in common would have to be an abundance of carbon atoms.

In any event, once these guys got past their opening statements, which were mostly paeans to the beauty and truth of their respective views and the depravity of the other guy’s views, they got into a genuine back-and-forth which was fairly fun to watch.  Hitchens would do well to make most of his debates into mostly cross-ex with relatively little time upfront for openings and rebuttals.   

Overall rating: 3.0 stars






Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Layfield & Tee vs. Tzortzis & Deen

Hamza Tzortis leads off by quoting Dr. Craig’s argument #1 (Kalam cosmological argument), borrowing so heavily therefrom that he occasionally goes beyond homage to something more like reenactment. He manages to waste a bit of time over actual infinities here, but otherwise he does a fairly good job. As usual with the Kalam, the argument is founded upon an invalid equivocation to get us from "begins to exist" in the usual sense of the phrase (rearrangement of matter into a novel form, over time, via natural forces) to a completely unique cosmological sense of the phrase.

Brian Layfield starts off with reminiscences of his childhood. (This is almost never a good sign.) He eventually gets around to a relatively robust presentation of the problem of human suffering, and throws in a few other tidbits.

Adam Deen focuses upon provides us something very much like Dr. Craig's argument number #3, an argument from the existence of something he calls “objective moral truth,” and just like Dr. Craig, the argument here merely assumes submission to Authority is the only sort of universal morality worth considering. Coming from a Muslim (one who submits to Allah) this is not particularly a particularly surprising view. Also, since neither Tzortis nor Deen credit Craig for their arguments, I must wonder about whether they think there are any objective moral truths to be had on the topic of plagiarism.

Robert Tee leads off, oddly enough, with radiometric dating of rocks and such, and goes on to make a several scientific arguments against creationism. I’m assuming that he is assuming that the theists in the room are primarily creationists, and for all I know he is correct about this. In any event, he gets nailed on cross-ex for taking this approach.

Overall, this event isn't worth watching, but it does serve one useful purpose, that is, as a demonstration that generic arguments for a Creator Deity work equally well for any flavor of monotheism. Of course, this implies that such arguments tell us so little about the nature of the One True God, that we would have to go far beyond them in order to embrace some particular faith. Even if the arguments of Tzortzis and Deen went through (and I've already shown why they fail) they would at best admonish us to have faith in the god of Spinoza, Paine, and Einstein, rather than the God of Abraham, Jesus, or Mohammad.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Brandeis Humanists vs Brandeis Chabad in Boston, MA

This debate (video, mp3) was a student produced event featuring student debaters from Brandeis Humanists and Brandeis Chabad.

The religious side of the debate throws in a bit of natural theology (e.g. first cause) as well as arguments from revelation (e.g. Torah) and "morality" (i.e. blind obedience to Authority). It's the usual theological rubbish, and not even dolled up enough to look like philosophy.

The irreligious side talks too fast at first, so I may have missed a couple of their arguments. Eventually, the first speaker commits the genetic fallacy on a global scale, which is a common enough tactic from amateur debaters such as John Loftus. The second debater leads off with the graveyard of dead gods, implicitly makes the argument that, with so many gods on offer, the apriori probability of following the one true religion is fairly low. He also alludes to incompatible properties arguments and presents a highly particularized presentation of the argument from evil, which was fairly well done. He also makes a few other arguments rooted in the nature of Scripture. This final speaker is by far the most effective debater of the day, and he also has a lot of fun interacting with the audience, which is fairly unusual for such events.

Overall, this debate isn't worth watching. In case you are wondering why there are so few atheists and theists making the rounds around the professional god-debate circuit, this debate might help clear that up for you -- it turns out that it is hard to debate well and easy to debate badly. I think it is adorable and even admirable when amateurs take on great challenges, but not particularly enjoyable. Also, the audio quality is so poor that one ends up rewinding in order to hear poorly stated arguments more than once. Nonetheless, I praise both student groups for having a go at this, and I certainly hope more student groups attempt to put together such events. Consciousness raising can be its own reward.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

McBay vs. Robertson in Edinburgh, Scotland

This debate (vimeo / mp3) suffered to some extent from a surfeit of cordiality and a dearth of substantive debate. Robertson referred to the arguments listed at the back of his book, but he never quite got around to really making them. Here they are:

1. Creation
2. Human mind
3. Moral law
4. Beauty
5. Religion
6. Experience
7. History
8. Church
9. Bible
10. Jesus

Any or all of these might well weigh in favor of a supernatural rather than a natural explanation, but I found it somewhat odd that he barely even alludes to the arguments which might be deployed to get one from, say, the historical Jesus to the veracity of Christian doctrine. They spend more time arguing about the propriety of the Sunday ferries. No, I’m not making this up.

The Q&A period was as lengthy and perhaps more informative than the debate itself, and I’d give the moderator top marks for moving it right along and calling out those who start into a monologue. All the questions save one went to the churchman, and at that point he was pressed to try to make an argument. Here it is - “If you don’t have an absolute morality, you have no morality.” Here is what that argument looks like, formalized:

1. Morality exists
2. If morality exists, it must be an absolute morality
3. If an absolute morality exists, it must exist in a transcendent mind
4. :. A transcendent mind exists in which morality subsists

Aside from the fact that “absolute morality” seems inherently contradictory (right action is always determined relative to the circumstances in which the moral actor finds herself) premises #2 and #3 are far from self-evident and no argument is given to support them.

This debate was really quite personable and enjoyable, but at the end of it all you’d be hard pressed to come up with an argument which was pressed for or against metaphysical naturalism. All told, I’d give it 3½ stars.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Hitchens vs. Albacete in New York City, NY

Christopher Hitchens and Lorenzo Albacete are polar opposites in more than one sense.  The former is an outspoken English atheist polemicist, the latter a soft-spoken Puerto-Rican priest.  Time and again, Hitchens tries to pick a fight, and every time the good monsignor turns the other cheek, or else feints to the left.  I found myself rooting for the priest, which is a very odd feeling for me.  All in all, it was a bizarre and surreal experience, and enjoyable if not terribly enlightening.

Here is a fairly fair account, and here is a vainly unfair one






Friday, September 19, 2008

Kagin vs Slick (CARM 2008)

Matt Slick gives his usual transcendental argument from God. It goes something like this:

The laws of logic exist independently of human minds
The laws of logic exist conceptually and transcendentally
You can't explain that! (without positing a transcendent mind)
:. God exists

I know, it sounds ridiculous, but this really is the argument on the table.

On first rebuttal, Slick disingenuously complains that Kagin did not use his opening statement as rebuttal time. Not only is it generally unnecessary (or even inappropriate) to rebut during one's opening, but in this particular case it is untrue to say that Kagin failed to do so. In fact, he said something like this: "How did we get the laws of logic? The same way we got the laws of arithmetic, the multiplication table, the alphabet ... people thought it up."

The laws of arithmetic are particularly salient here, because whichever culture and language gives rise to them, they pretty much have to turn out the same way if they are going to prove useful in modeling the real world. This doesn't prove, of course, that they are somehow transcendent, but merely that they have to be formulated in a certain way in order to yield results which are in accord with the material world.

Kagin also points out that the laws of logic have been modified over the centuries, a point which is especially true of emerging non-classical logical systems.

Slick's (p)rebuttal to Kagin's rebuttal is this: "Logic cannot be the product of human minds because human minds are different." By this reasoning, the laws of grammar, spelling, algebra, calculus, and any other set of linguistic conventions governing meaningful expression cannot be the product of human minds, because how could we possibly have come to agree on such things? Blue sleeps faster than Wednesday, indeed, Mr. Slick.

Despite basing his case for theism entirely on an argument which presumes that selected linguistic conventions transcend human minds, Slick manages to sound more persuasive than Kagin during this event, because Kagin does not focus his efforts on any particular argument but sort of meanders peripatetically around the familiar theism/nontheism conceptual landscape.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mac Donald vs. Novak in NYC, NY

This dialogue wasn’t so much a debate as a quasi-Socratic Q & A, but conservative scholar and author Heather Mac Donald would surely be a formidable debater in favor of freethought.  She asks clear, insightful, and incredibly pointed questions, but somehow manages to sound engaged and conversational rather than enraged and confrontational.  Basically, she is the anti-Hitchens.

Heather Mac Donald and Michael Novak have a bit of history online, such as here and here.  They met together in person to discuss Novak’s new book, but soon reverted to their longstanding and ongoing debate.  Mac Donald presses on the arguments from evil and unbelief, and Novak comes back with the idea that it would somehow be unfair for God to prevent tragedy.  Given the “Heavenly Father” metaphor, it is difficult to see how this might be so.  No one would fault a father for preventing his daughter from drowning in a flash-flood, and surely no one would say that he is thereby forcing his loving care upon his otherwise free-spirited little girl.

Possibly the highlight of this reel is about 16 minutes into the recording, when Mac Donald presses Novak about raising children with “respect for honesty” and “respect for others.” He asserts that “You do need a culture which instills those [values] and not all cultures do,” to which she replies, “Really?” in such a sweet voice that one has to wonder how she can manage to be so simultaneously incredulous and polite.  At this point, I actually started laughing out loud.

She went on to elaborate on various other issues, confounding Novak at almost every turn.  After watching a few too many W.L. Craig debates, it was a nice change of pace to see a freethinker who is confident and smooth, rather than befuddled and confused.  



Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rubens vs Tzortzis at East London University

Islam or Secular Liberalism
13 Sep 2008

Tom Rubens starts out by waffling on a bit about the nature of faith and science and their respective approaches to knowledge. Not exactly a barn-burner of an opening here, but he makes a few cogent points. He goes on to address the problem of moral certainty in the abscence of divine commands, and I dozed off for a bit (If you are brand new to freethought, you might nevertheless find this part interesting).

Hamza Tzortzis leads off by attempting to distinguish between religion (as generally understood) and the One True Faith of Islam. Where haev I seen this move before? He then goes on to make a fascinating case against much of what Europeans and especially Britons have stood for, such as free markets, capitalism, individualism, personal liberty, and such. He blames the capitalism of weathly nations for the poverty of the poor nations, and the liberalism of free nations for their endemic crime and addication rates. He goes on to describe a few of the indisputably negative outcomes of recent Western military engagements in the Arab world. Finally, he makes a positive (but entirely theoretical) case for implementing sharia law as a solution to our marco-economic problems. Humorously, he has to go all the way back to the 15th century to find an example of a Jewish rabbi bragging about the toleration of minority religions by their Mulsim neighbors. Oddly, he doesn't seem to see the irony in this, but he ups the irony a bit more when praising the properly restrained excercise of jihad.

I have to point out that Mr. Tzortzis fails to provide any modern examples of Islamic economics, law, justice, and jihad, so as to demonstrate empirically their superiority by comparing Mulsim nations to other nations which have adopted secular and liberal values, nations like Japan, Denmark, or Canada. Nevertheless, he closes by saying that we should avoid abstract ideas in favor of ideas which have a pratical effect. No, seriously. At this point, my irony meter blew several fuzes, and now I'm wondering whether this sort of debate is covered under the warranty.

Whether you are seeking a clash of ideas, or simply a few profound and original ideas, you can safely skip this debate.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hitchens vs. Turek in Richmond, VA

Christopher Hitchens/Frank Turek Debate on Vimeo.

Dr. Turek provides a handful of arguments, many of which are really the same argument stated with various degrees of cleverness and alliteration.  He sums up by saying that naturalists have to explain the following features of the universe:  

  1. How the universe arose from nothing
  2. How extreme fine-tuning and design arose from chaos
  3. How life arose from non-life
  4. How morality arose from materials
  5. How reason and logic arose from matter
  6. How mind arose from mud
  7. How maths arose from molecules
  8. How human freedom arose from blind forces
  9. How consciousness arose from chemicals
Of course, problems #4-9 are all really asking the same question, "How do minds arise from matter?" which is really just a subset of problem #3.  The answer, in a word, is evolution.   Unfathomably long ago, self-replicating molecules came about through natural processes which we do not yet understand, and eventually lead to the massive biodiversity which we observe on Earth via a process of evolution by descent with modification.  This answer is provisional inasmuch as we've little idea of how the first replicators originally arose, but this hypothesis nevertheless has vastly more explanatory scope and power than Turek's so-call explanation, an immaterial immeasurable magical mega-mind moving by means and methods most mysterious.

Turek's first two arguments are essentially borrowed from Dr. Craig, and I've addressed those elsewhere.  I should point out, though, that modern cosmologists have had quite little to say about the properties of nothingness.  If the good Dr. Turek things he has new insights about t=0, he should perhaps get published and put them all to shame.

Hitchens leads with a brief homage to Thomas Jefferson, and then (oddly enough) Peter Griffin. He goes on to point out that Turek's arguments prove deism at most and that Darwin made most of them rather toothless quite long ago.  This is the closest that Hitchens comes to refuting any affirmative arguments.  Turek could have bit on this bait and started arguing about the evidence for evolution, but quite wisely declines to do so.

The cross-ex was spirited if a but rude at times.  Worth watching for its entertainment value, but do not expect much in the way of insight.  What I found most frustrating about this part was Hitchens' refusal to directly address the myth of an objective morality.  Alas, one ought not expect incisive debate from a rhetorician.

As to Turek, I must say that for his first foray into public debate, he performed amazingly well. Dr. Craig should watch his back and start demanding royalties whenever other apologists crib his best arguments.  


Monday, August 11, 2008

Hitchens vs Prager vs DSouza (2008)

A Catholic, A Jew, and an Atheist walk into an auditorium... (video, audio)

Hitchens makes his usual spiel, which I consider more rhetorical than logical and more entertaining than persuasive. His opening statement sort of toys around the edges of Drange's arguments from unbelief and suffering, without actually stating the premises or making the arguments themselves.

D'Souza also gives us a variation on his usual spiel, including his personal background and an argument from cosmological fine-tuning to (presumably) deism.

Prager makes the argument that we can use "common sense" to understand cosmology, and that the atheist must explain how we went from nothing to Bach. He seems to believe that theism is a sort of default position, and anything less than an exhaustive scientific explanation of life, the universe, and everything should allow for reversion to his favored hypothesis -- a magical mind mediating by mysterious means.

None of the opening statements were particularly perspicacious or insightful, however, around 24 minutes in the various speakers start going back and forth and things really get going. At this point, the event rapidly turns into something I've only ever seen or heard on the internet, that is, an enthusiatic, energetic and enjoyable three-way exchange.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Shook vs. Craig in Vancouver, BC

Craig leads with his usual five arguments, after getting a bit of a dig in at Shook’s website. 

Shook leads with an unusual deductive argument which might be formalized along these lines:

  1. Only those propositions for which there is good evidence are probably true.
  2. There is not any good evidence for the claims of supernaturalism.
  3. Therefore, supernaturalism is probably false, and naturalism probably true.

This is not a particularly good argument, but it is an argument nonetheless.  Craig claims that Shook made no argument whatsoever, but Shook clearly elucidated both premises during the course of his opening statement.  It is not to Shook’s credit that he failed to make more varied and affirmative arguments for naturalism, but taking this approach did free up some time to go after the arguments for theism.

On rebuttal, Craig actually sounds a little bit shook up - I’ve never before heard him interlarding his speech with disfluencies in the manner of mere mortal men.  He argues that even if there are no good arguments for God, that we still might reasonably believe in God, and then goes on to call this problem a “huge lacuna” in the debate.  I must agree, but surely such a gap would favor agnosticism rather than theism (Craig rightly points this out on cross).  Craig goes on to say that a “changeless self-conscious being” is a totally coherent concept, despite the fact that our inevitably subjective understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness is inherently and invariably temporal.  As Indigo Montoya once said, “You keep using that word.  I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

During his rebuttal period, Shook goes directly after Craig’s five arguments, which puts him ahead of almost all the freethinking debaters I’ve heard.  He fails to refute the bizarrely self-contradictory idea of an objective morality (existing solely in the mind of god) but he does have a go at Craig argument from objective morality.  More generally, Shook’s counterarguments are not quite as strong as they could have been, but kudos to him for having a go.  Interestingly, Shook uses something very much like the analogy to planetary (as opposed to universal) fine-tuning which I wrote about on my other blog so mega-kudos for that. J

Although Shook ought to have made a few positive arguments for naturalism (as Austin Dacey does) both debaters did a fairly fine job of casting reasonable doubt on their opponent’s arguments, and thus we have witnessed yet another AGNOSTIC WIN!

Overall rating: 4.5


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Cooke vs. Craig in Auckland, NZ

Craig gives his usual five arguments.  Cooke gives an interesting opening statement with a couple of potentially persuasive arguments, including a variation on the graveyard of dead gods which we have often heard from Hitchens.  On rebuttal, Cooke seems to have rather little interest in picking apart Craig’s arguments, which is a bit of a shame since they both agreed to have a debate.  Craig, as per usual, relentlessly pounds on his opponent for failing to effectively counter his apologetics, and in this case the accusation starts to really stick after a while.

Cooke started out strong in his opening but after that he falls flat out pretty quick.  It would seem that he brought a pillow to a fistfight.  Better luck next time!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Reinhardt vs. Anthony in Norman, OK

This event wasn't really a debate, because Unitarian Universalists are generally more interested in dialogue than in debate.  The theme was originally intended to be a discussion of values which people of very different faiths (or no faith) might have in common.  

It was a pretty fun time, and I did not get the sense that either speaker managed to converge on the possibility of a set of common values.  Perhaps we should have another go at it sometime.  

Avalos vs. Weikart from Des Moines, IA

This radio debate stands out in a few ways from those that I’m used to hearing.  It centers upon a highly unusual question, that is, whether Darwinian or Christian ideology more influence on the ideology of Nazism.  Moreover, the debate mostly cenetered around questions of history and personal ideology rather than scientific or philosophical arguments.  

Weikart leads with a number of points at which scientific or pseudo-scientific theories were incorporated into the Nazi theories about race.  He fails to address the obvious problem of the is/ought gap between scientific truths and moral imperatives and in this failure he falls (ironically enough) into more-or-less the same fallacious thinking that embraced by those he reviles: inferring that the scientific truths of Darwinism somehow imply the moral imperatives of “Social Darwinism” or enforced eugenics.  This problem is never resolved in this debate, nor even much addressed so far as I could tell.

Avalos comes out swinging a giant brickbat, composed  of Christian writings which resembled the Nazi agenda so strongly as to be downright disturbing in their prescience.  Here is the complete passage as quoted from an earlier English translation than that generally used today.  After quoting Luther at some length, Avalos challenges Weikart to find anything remotely resembling an SS to-do list from the writings of Charles Darwin.

They go back and forth for awhile, each pointing out particular way in which the other guy’s ideological forebears influenced Nazi ideology and propaganda.  Neither debater clearly gains the advantage, but it struck me that Weikart always had to make a couple of weak inferences to get From Darwin to Hitler while Avalos drew a fairly bold and straight line from Lutheran dogma to 20th century German anti-Semitism.  

All told, it was not a bad listen, and doubly so considering it originated in terrestrial radio.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Manning vs. Cook on the radio

This quasi-debate was really a sort of two-on-one radio interview of non-theist Robert Manning by two incredibly overconfident theistics, including Pastor Gene Cook.  This one starts out slow and slowly becomes ironical, then ludicrous, then hilarious.  I’ve listened to it 2½ times now, going on three.

The credulity gap here is about as wide as you can get, with one side certain of nothing beyond cogito ergo sum and the other side claiming apodictic certainty of the finer points of their refined reformed theology.  It would appear that presuppositionalism and hyperskepticism are more like oil and water than, say, vinegar and baking soda. 

Turning presuppositionalism around, Manning the ├╝berskeptic hypothesizes about a deity which Pastor Cook can’t quite grok, because this hypothetical being does not reveal its true nature for a full 7,000 years rather than a mere 6,000 years after creating the planet.   I know, right?  The mind reels.

Money quote – “God is god and you’re a little piece of horse dung!” 

(You'll never guess who said that :-)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Singer vs. D'Souza in Los Angeles, CA

In this debate, both Peter Singer and Dinesh D'Souza lead with the argument that the other guy's ideology suffers from a problem of evil.  D'Souza argues that the godless communist regimes were quite horrifically murderous, while Singer's argument is basically that a Heavenly Father would never allow such atrocities to happen.  Neither of these interlocutors manages to quite directly rebut the arguments of the other, possibly because they were still making new arguments during their rebuttal segments.  Singer does manage a stinging reply noting that theistic ethics justified genocide and rape in the Old Testament, issues which D'Souza pretty much ignores.  They also go back and forth a bit on cosmology and fine-tuning, but not to any great effect from either side.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Kagin vs. Slick in Pensacola, FL

This debate (while downright abysmal in terms of substance) was a relief from the usual cosmological, teleological, and moral arguments.  Rev. Slick leads with a parable about a locked  room, and then goes into the details of his unusual argument that logical absolutes must exist in the absolute and transcendent mind of God.  This argument presumes that such statements as “a statement may not be both true and false at the same time in the same sense” do not follow from the meanings conventionally given by English-speaker to words like “true” and “false” but rather from some sort of ethereal other world in which truths exist apart from human minds.

Consider the statement “The Earth is a sphere.”  Is this true?  Well, it is true enough for pedagogical purposes, at least until around eighth grade or so.  The statement is not a perfect model of the actual planet, but it provides a useful approximation which works for most purposes.  What if all statements about the actual world are only true in the sense that they provide useful but approximate models of reality?  What then becomes of Slick’s absolutist model of truth and falsity?  I’d suppose it vanishes in a puff of logic, if logic might possibly puff.  In any event, it would seem that we are quite obviously dealing with linguistic conventions, which may be altered as occasion warrants.  Indeed, this has already been done by the practitioners of fuzzy logic, wherein a statement may be equally true and false. 

Edwin Kagin has a bit of a go at our own peculiar myths, but mostly he falls flat.  He does, however, manage to point out that logic (like any other linguistic / semantic construct) has been made up by human beings.  He goes on a bit about the yawning chasm gap between deism and theism, and point out that Slick has most of his work in front of him.

Slick pulls a bit of a dick move in his rebuttal, repeatedly faulting Kagin for his failure to rebut the transcendental argument during his own opening statement.  This is just plain weird, and reminds me of how Craig usually closes his opening statements by inviting his opponent to abandon the structure of debate in favor of giving an immediate rebuttal.  It would seem that the laws of logic are absolute, by the rules of structured debate are craggy and slick.

Overall rating: 2.0



Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Antony vs. Craig in Amherst, MA

In this debate Craig leads with the argument that it is impossible for there to be any objective moral truths apart from the (implicitly subjective) preferences of a creator deity and that morality cannot possibly arise in a primate species which exists merely as another branch in a vast tree of life.  He does not show how this follows from any particular view of biology or meta-ethics, but merely assumes that morality must be rooted in a stern and powerful father-figure who threatens punishment for sin and promises rewards for righteousness.  One might suppose that the catchy verse enjoining us to “be good for goodness sake” never made much of a mark on his intellect and conscience.

Craig closes with three challenges to his opponent:

  • Explain the basis of objective moral values
  • Explain the source of objective moral duties
  • Explain how ultimate moral accountability exists

Antony rightly ignores Craig’s challenge during her opening statement, and goes on to elucidate the idea that objective truths about the suffering of sentient beings should be all the facts we need to necessitate moral action.  I did not find her arguments convincing as to the existence of objective moral facts, but certainly they were no worse than equating the naked fear of divine wrath (however arbitrary) with moral absolutes.   Antony lucidly lays out and roundly rejects the idea that moral action must involve submission to a higher power, and recounts the Euthyphro dilemma to the audience in clear terms.  She provides some background on what moral action should be taken to mean and makes the case that only the moral agent who is uncertain of eternal rewards or punishments may indeed be perfectly pious, doing good for the sake of goodness alone.  By the time both opening statements were finished, I was cautiously optimistic that Craig had finally met his equal in a public forum.

In the rebuttal period, Craig chastised his opponent for failing to use her opening statement as a rebuttal period in which to address his three challenges which he made at the end of his opening.  This is a standard Craig debating tactic, which he pulls on most of his opponents, e.g. “…he must first tear down my five arguments, then erect a case for naturalism in their place.”  Presumably Craig does this not because he is unaware of the ground rules of any given debate (he is far too experienced for that) but merely as an attempt frustrate and fluster his opponent with a quick below-the-belt jab.  This tactic doesn’t seem to work particularly well on Antony, who seems quite unflustered as she expertly dismantled most of Craig arguments, pointing out exactly where and how he went awry.

In Craig’s counter-rebuttals he asserts that his opponent had not addressed his arguments (as he always does) but for once his words ring hollow.  They go back and forth for awhile, Antony reasserting that moral action is that which objectively alleviates suffering of any sentient creature, Craig reasserting that moral action can only be defined in terms of obedience to the commands of a Grandly Objective Deity.  They also go back and forth on the Euthyphro for a bit, and Craig tried to sound authoritative as he argued that we can avoid either horn of the dilemma by positing goodness as inherent to God’s character.  Of course, this merely gives rise to a slightly different dilemma, “Is God inherently good because he always desires good things, or does God’s desire for good things make him inherently good?” 


The overall theme of the debate was that naturalists may well identify actions which are objectively good in the sense that they are rooted in objective facts about the world, such as desires thwarted or fulfilled, while supernaturalists have the blessing of being permanently retarded in their moral development, always and ever looking upward like wee toddlers for their moral advice, rewards, and punishments.  Having sustained the argument that only the moral values of a fatherly deity should count, a theist may go on to link those desires to our own individual desires by invoking promises of divine retribution and reward, thus executing a complexly paradoxical philosophical pirouette which allows for one to smuggle the central tenets of ethical egoism into the heart of divine command theory.  I’ve heard something sort of like this at least once before, “If you kiss Hank's ass, He'll give you a million dollars; and if you don't, He'll kick the shit out of you.”



Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ahmed vs. Habermas at Cambridge University

This debate was outstanding, a geniune clash of intellectual titans.  

Ahmed leads with attacks the validity of any appeals to scholarly consensus, which rely heavily on faith that the speaker is neither miscontruing nor overgeneralizing from their sources, which are practially unverifiable to a lay audience during a spoken debate. He also lays out a handful of devastating logical arguments which militate in favor of skepticism with regard to the resurrection of Jesus. Habermas comes back with his usual approach from scholarly consensus, which falls a bit flat having been preemptorily undercut by Ahmed's arguments.

In the back and forth between the two debaters, we also saw Ahmed's erudition and methodological clarity on display and in sharp contrast to Habermas' appeal to the authority of New Testament scholarship. Even such a luminary as Habermas had some difficulty from being overwhelmed, though he put up the best possible scholarly case for his side of the argument (aside from a few bizarre arguments about near-death experiences).

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Shermer vs D'souza in Nashville, TN

This debate covers a lot of ground, but it has far more breadth than depth. Michael Shermer is almost always careful and circumspect in his assertions and arguments, while Dinesh D'Souza is almost always overreaching in his arguments and hasty in his inferences. This event provided no glaring exceptions to these general rules.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ehrman vs. Licona in Kansas City, MO

Interestingly, this debate took place at my own non-alma-mater, the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  I still get their newsletter from time to time.

Licona is seriously losing his voice (alas!) and this becomes downright hilarious around 14 minutes into the film when he attempts an homage to commercial audio fine print.  He tries to make the case that an historical analysis may demonstrate the truth of the resurrection to a reasonable certainty, by applying his own set of criteria to a set of “generally accepted facts” which fairly resemble the minimal facts of Dr. Gary Habermas.  He also includes a few cute pictures of children’s cartoon animals, and at least one animated express train.

Ehrman, for his part, walks back the congregation on their assumptions about the nature and origin of scripture, giving an account of how the gospels came about several decades after the life of Christ as the result of a multinational and multilingual process of passing around the basic Christian kerygma and myth until it finally ripened into a more-or-less biographical form, penned down by anonymous authors several steps removed from the historical Jesus of Nazareth.  I got the sense that the pastor sitting behind Professor Ehrman was distinctly nervous for his flock by this point in the presentation, and this made it all the more entertaining to watch.

Except for Licona’s fading voice and ridiculous visual aids, this was overall one of the best head-to-heads on the issues surrounding the resurrection of Jesus.  Both sides gave just about the best case that you can hope to get, and both presenters were evidently quite comfortable with the material and with their presentation thereof.  Definitely worth watching.

Overall rating: 4.5 stars





Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hitchens vs Boteach in NYC

Christopher Hitchens' arguments are the usual collection of clever and witty one-liners and emotional appeals.

Shmuley Boteach's arguments are also a series of emotional appeals, but without the wit and humor.

Do yourself a favor, and skip this one.

Hitchens vs. Boteach in NYC

In this debate, Christopher Hitchens meets his rightful match in Shmuley Boteach, an interlocutor who is as keen on rhetorical flourish and as short on valid arguments as Hitchens himself.  This debate is massively entertaining though fairly non-substantive (like reality television) and all too often it sounds as if both men are running the playbook from Schopenhauer’s 38 Ways to Win an Argument, which remains the definitive text for cynically unscrupulous rhetoricians.  Perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on these guys.  They each make at least two-and-a-half arguments which might possibly be recast as valid deductions.  I leave that as an exercise to the listener, and good luck with it.

Hitchens quote of the day – “I have rather a crazy salad of slanders to respond to and I don’t want to miss any of them out.”


Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Shook vs Craig at UBC

University of British Columbia, 29 Jan 2008

Craig leads with his usual five arguments: cosomological, teleological, moral, historical Jesus, and personal experiences. If you've not seen it before, this debate provides a fairly representative sample.

Shook leads off with the old "atheists believe in only one less god than monotheists" trope, which I consider cute and witty but unpersuasive. He goes on to describe atheism and naturalism for a bit, and finally starts in on an argument, which is really more of an analysis and rebuttal of Craig's theological positions and arguments. What he ought to have done instead is put forth his own arguments for the truth of metaphysical naturalism, as we've seen from the likes of J.J. Lowder and Rick Carrier. To be fair, he alludes to possible arguments (e.g. incoherent properties) but an allusion does not an argument make.

Upon rebuttal, predictably enough, Craig spanks Shook like a naughty schoolboy for failing to make an affirmative argument for naturalism. He does this quite efficiently and effectively, leaving himself time to review, restate, and reinforce his own affirmative arguments. Not looking good for naturalism by this point in the debate. Craig admits that hypothetical oughts can be objective in the same sense as other truths about how to attains one's goals (e.g. if you want to stay healthy, don't eat poison) but goes on to once again confuse objective moral values with subjective divine preferences.

When it comes time for Shook to rebut, he gets scattershot and hits a few targets on accident, but for the most part fails to point out where Craig's carefully and clearly constructed arguments go awry.